Captain Torius Vin and the crew of the Stargazer have given up the pirate life, instead becoming abolitionist privateers bent on capturing slave ships and setting their prisoners free. But when rumors surface of a new secret weapon in devil-ruled Cheliax, are the Stargazers willing to go up against a navy backed by Hell itself?
New Places, New Faces
Captain Abidi Ben Akhiri’s boots brushed the thick planks of the Ostenso wharves a step behind the heavier tread of his half-orc bosun. The Akhiri disguise felt natural now, long-practiced in the five months they’d been spying on the Chelish fleet stationed here.
Spying for Andoran had taught them all caution, and the tension between the devil-worshiping nation of Cheliax and the abolitionist republic of Andoran bred espionage like filth bred the plague. Consequently, though the pair wasn’t exactly trying to be stealthy, they kept to the narrower streets and alleys, shying away from the few flickering streetlamps that dotted the wharf district. For the most part, their passage went unnoticed—this late in the evening, most of the populace was already at home and asleep—but the tread of heavy boots and the clatter of armor told the sailors they were not without company.
“Damn!” The bosun stopped and cast around for someplace to hide. “There?” Grogul pointed to the recessed alcove of a shop’s front door, shadowed from the pearly glow of the moon and sallow streetlamps.
“Go! We don’t have time to deal with the city watch.” The Ostenso constabulary patrolled the wharf district relentlessly after dark, questioning everyone they encountered.
The pair hurried into the alcove. Unfortunately, its depths proved shallower than they’d hoped. When the troop of guards rounded the corner, Grogul’s bulk still protruded into the light.
“Thillion should have come! He’s thinner!” The captain’s whisper barely reached his bosun’s ear, but was edged like a razor.
“Sorry.” Grogul tried to pull back farther, but his boots still stuck out into the light.
Five guards clad in mail marched down the street behind a broad-shouldered sergeant wearing a breastplate emblazoned with the city crest. Their eyes darted about with professional scrutiny, sharp and attentive, their hands never far from their swords. If they spotted the pair, there would be questions at the very least, and the last thing Abidi Ben Akhiri wanted right now was to supply any answers.
“Run for it?” Grogul whispered.
“No. Just hold still.” Breathy words issued from the captain’s lips, and first Grogul, then the captain himself faded completely from view.
The squad clattered past, keen eyes sweeping over them. Steel whispered against leather as Grogul drew his kukri.
One of the squad stopped, staring right at their hiding place. Whether she had heard the faint noise or caught some anomaly of light and shadow, her attention transfixed them like a spear. The pair held their breath.
“Something?” The sergeant pulled his patrol to a stop with a raised fist. The entire squad turned and stared into the shadows.
“Nah. A rat maybe.” The guard shook her head and rejoined her fellows. With a clatter of armor and weapons, they continued down the street.
When they were gone, a gusty breath escaped the half-orc’s cavernous chest. “That’s a handy trick.”
“You have no idea. Now take my hand.” They fumbled around until Grogul’s huge hand enclosed the captain’s smaller one. “Good. Now lead on.”
“Just hope that spell lasts,” the half-orc muttered. “This is embarrassing.”
“Are you saying you’d be ashamed to be seen holding my hand?”
“Um … no … it’s just that…” Grogul cleared his throat. “There’s some rough types around the wharves, you know … and I got a reputation to uphold with the ladies.”
The captain chuckled low. Grogul had indeed earned a reputation with the ladies of the local pubs and pleasure houses. Evidently, they liked scars. “Your reputation’s safe with me. Just keep quiet and hurry. We’re late already.”
“Right.” Grogul tugged, and they continued on through the planked streets and alleys.
Finally, the bosun stopped at a nondescript pub. The signboard swinging above the door displayed two spinning copper coins and a faded name: The Two Pinches. “This is it.”
“Okay. Let me just…” With a quick glance to make sure no one was in sight, then a few whispered arcane words, they blinked into visibility. The captain straightened his jacket and fez and looked up at his bosun. “How do I look?”
The half-orc scowled at his companion and muttered, “Perfect.” He led the way through the door into the pub’s main room, his captain close on his heels.
The place gave a whole new definition to the word dreary. With plain wooden walls, simply built tables and chairs, and dim lamplight, this could have been any pub in any city in Avistan. It was perfectly anonymous, which was just what both the visitors and the regulars wanted. A few locals swept curious gazes over the pair and looked away. Grogul and Captain Akhiri had been here often enough that there would be no questions, no rumors, and no trouble. The bosun strode directly to the door to the left of the bar. The barkeep gave them a glance and a nod. Arrangements had been made.
The back room was even more bereft of decor than the common room, sporting nothing but a bare table, four chairs, and two dour thugs with cudgels. They reached for their clubs, then recognized their visitors and relaxed.
“How does this place stay in business?” the captain whispered.
The half-orc flashed him a stern glance, then faced the two thugs. “Nobody follows us.” Grogul rounded the table and kicked back a threadbare rug to reveal a small trapdoor.
“Nobody follows. Got it,” one of the bruisers agreed, crossing his burly arms.
Grogul lifted the trapdoor and descended into the dark and wet-smelling hole in the floor. His voice floated up from the gloom. “Careful. The boards are slippery and the ceiling’s low.”
Grogul’s warning turned out to be both accurate and welcome. Akhiri’s boots found slippery purchase on the slimy ladder rungs. The trapdoor thumped closed overhead, plunging them into darkness. The captain settled onto the damp wooden platform gingerly. Wavelets lapped at its underside, too close for comfort, and the stench of rotting seaweed made it difficult to breathe without gagging.
“This way.” Grogul’s voice seemed to come from nowhere.
“Wait. I can’t see.” Akhiri’s dagger whispered from its sheath, barely audible above the lap and clap of water on wood. A single arcane word brought light to the drawn blade, illuminating their surroundings well enough to see. “Okay. Go ahead.”
Grogul shaded his eyes from the glare of the glowing dagger and led the way. The narrow walkway, barely two feet wide and slick with algal growth, flexed under his weight. Long practice walking on a pitching deck made such a traverse an easy affair for the bosun. Akhiri followed more carefully, eyeing the dark water with concern.
The way branched and forked several times as muted thumps and voices filtered down from the buildings overhead. A few other ladders could be seen in at the edge of the circle of light, egresses back to the world above. They passed them all by without a glance. Grogul turned this way and that, unerring in his choice of paths, until finally they came to a set of low steps that led up to a small trapdoor.
“Careful here. The boards are really slick, and you do not want to fall in the water.”
“Just get the door open.” There was trepidation in the captain’s voice, now that the imagined horrors lurking beneath the dark water might not be imagined after all.
Grogul knocked three times, then once, then twice. With the loud clack of a bolt being thrown, the hatch opened. Warm yellow lamplight poured forth—a welcome sight indeed. The captain sheathed the glowing dagger, dousing the magical light, and followed Grogul up the steps into the low room above.
“About damned time.” The diminutive form of Twilp Farfan backed away from the trapdoor, squinting suspiciously up at the two. “You’re late!”
“Much later and you’d have missed your tide.” An identical Captain Abidi Ben Akhiri rose from where he sat on a dusty bedroll and smiled at the pair. “Akhiri’s supposed to be my disguise, Vreva. But I must say that you’re looking very fine this evening—or should I say, I’m looking very fine!”
“And your sense of humor is as bad as ever, Torius Vin.” Vreva dispelled her disguise with a snap of her fingers. Shaking out her long black hair, she smoothed her skirt and frowned at the algal slime marring the toes of her shoes. “And don’t call me Vreva. It’s Virika Korvis. If you confuse me, I might slip up.”
“Virika. Right. Sorry. Well, you do look very fine, even as Virika.”
“Thank you, but I still don’t quite recognize myself when I look in the mirror.” Vreva cringed inwardly as she remembered the numerous surgeries she had endured to change her face from that of the now-notorious Vreva Jhafae. Waking up swathed in bandages, only to be magically healed, then doped with opium again for the next go-round had been an onerous torment, but necessary to assume her new identity. There were too many people across the Inner Sea who wanted to hang her former persona. Other changes were easier. She ran her fingers through her hair, no longer elegantly coifed, but loose and curling about her shoulders. After so long as Vreva Jhafae, high-class courtesan to the slavers of Okeno, she had thought it would be difficult to become Virika Korvis, local Ostenso business owner, but she was actually enjoying her new persona, and Virika was certainly less expensive to maintain than Vreva had been.
Torius looked to Grogul. “Any trouble?”
“Not really.” Grogul shrugged. “She had some persistent customers, and we met up with a watch patrol on the way, but we ditched ’em.”
“Customers? That’s good.” Torius looked back at Vreva. “Business is picking up?”
“Quite a bit since your last visit, yes. The Officers’ Club is finally getting a reputation as the place for all sorts of entertainment.” The Twilight Talons, Andoran’s covert organization of state-sponsored spies, had gone to great lengths to set Vreva up as the proprietor of the new social club. What better venue from which to spy on the Chelish navy. The immense Ostenso fleet and legendary naval shipyards were a constant threat to Andoran’s young republic, and saber-rattling rival nations traded spies like fighting mastiffs traded fleas.
“Good.” Torius waved Twilp forward, and the halfling approached. “We better hurry. I wasn’t kidding about the tide. Half an hour and you’ll be wading back to the Two Pinches.”
“I don’t know why we couldn’t do the exchange at my place.” Vreva frowned at Twilp. “All this sneaking around is ridiculous.”
“No, me walking into a public house crowded with Chelish military officers with stolen merchandise under my arm would be ridiculous.” The halfling crossed his arms. “My risk, my rules.”
“You got it, I presume.” Vreva eyed him hopefully.
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.” Twilp pulled a waxed canvas bag from beneath his jacket and withdrew a slim, leather-bound book secured with a locked brass clasp. “In fact, I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t told me exactly how to find this thing. Even knowing where it was hidden, it was all I could do to find the secret catch for that compartment. Really top-notch job of concealment there.”
“Thank you.” Vreva had taken great pains to hide the journal.
“Quopek has a new tenant in your old suite, you know.”
“Good. That means they’ve stopped looking for my hidden caches.” Vreva held out a hand for the book.
“Um…” Twilp drew it back, his eyes narrowing. “The other half of my payment, please.”
Vreva dropped her hand. “After I confirm it’s genuine.” Her fingers brushed the handle of the hand crossbow hidden beneath the frills of her dress. At this range, she could fire the weapon right through the material with little chance of missing. And with the poison she’d put on the bolt, she wouldn’t have to hit anything vital. Of course, Torius might not react well if she murdered Twilp for her codebook, but she’d sleep with Asmodeus himself before she walked out of here without it. “That’s what we agreed on.”
“Oh, all right.” Twilp held it out again. “But I’d be a fool to try to hand you a forgery.”
“Yes, you would, but I’m not saying you would have forged it.” Vreva took the book and examined it carefully. “If the Okeno slavers found it, they might have decoded my cipher and put a forgery in its place to throw me off.” She withdrew the poisoned needle that would shoot out of the spine if a key—any key—was inserted into the lock, or the clasp forced. Only by removing the needle would the book open. Holding the deadly needle between her teeth, she flipped open the clasp.
“That was really trapped?” Twilp squinted at the dark stain on the needle and swallowed hard.
“I told you it was.” Vreva flipped to the third page and scanned the text. The first two pages were gibberish to throw off any attempt at cracking the code. She decoded the first line, the cipher long committed to memory, and found it accurate. Three more dated entries that she remembered matched as well. Her detailed notes from five years of spying on the Okeno slavers had been recovered and were safe in her hands. With a deep sigh of relief, she smiled at Twilp. “It’s genuine.”
The halfling stuck out his hand. “Now, my money?”
“One moment.” Vreva reset the trap, slipped the poisoned needle back in place, latched the priceless book, and handed it to Torius. He already had orders to deliver it to Marshal Helena Trellis, commander of the Twilight Talons in Almas. Withdrawing a small leather pouch from a pocket in her dress, she tossed it to Twilp. “The sum we agreed upon in mixed gems, though I don’t think we have time now for you to appraise them.”
He caught it easily and bounced it in his palm. “I’m not going to insult you by saying I trust you, but I do know where you live, so cheating me would be pretty stupid.” The halfling tucked the bag away. “And you don’t strike me as stupid. Crazy, maybe, but definitely not stupid.”
“I’ve been called worse.” In fact, Vreva had been called many things in her life—prostitute, poisoner, sorcerer, and spy, among others. Being called crazy was almost a compliment.
“By me, in fact.” Torius laughed as he tucked the book under the belt of his trousers beneath his shirt, then looked down at the bulge under his clothes and cringed. “That needle won’t go off by itself, will it?”
“Not unless you try to pick the latch while it’s tucked in your pants.” Vreva raised an eyebrow. “And if you can do that, I can put you to work at the Officers’ Club!”
“No, thanks. My dance card’s already full.” His nose wrinkled with a look of disgust.
“By the way, how is Lothera Cothos?” Vreva might have sympathized with Torius’s plight, fielding the amorous attentions of the brusque harbormaster every time his ship arrived in Ostenso, if she wasn’t playing the same game with inebriated naval officers every day.
“Actually, she didn’t meet us when we arrived this time.” Torius’s countenance brightened. “I’m hoping she’s losing interest.”
“I hope not!” Vreva didn’t elaborate. Twilp didn’t know Vreva and Torius were Twilight Talons, and she didn’t want to provide any clues that might help him make the connection. Besides, Torius knew what she meant.
“We better get moving, sir.” Grogul lifted the trapdoor.
“Right. Time and tide wait for no one, and I don’t feel like getting my feet wet.” Torius gestured Vreva forward. “Ladies first.”
“Right.” She cast her disguise spell again, adjusting her gait and mannerisms reflexively. From the expression on Twilp’s face as he looked back and forth between her and Torius, she knew that her Abidi Ben Akhiri facade was perfect. She pitched her voice as closely as she could to match her disguise. “Who’s going to escort me back to the Officers’ Club? At this time of night a lone man’s a target for cutthroats, and I’m no fighter. I need someone along who can wield a sword, or at least be a distraction long enough for me to cast a spell.”
“Well, I can’t if you’re going to wear my face.” Torius peered at her and shook his head. “I don’t suppose you’d take my place the next time Lothera—”
“No, I will not! My disguise won’t hold up under that kind of scrutiny. Grogul, can you come with me?”
“I’ll go with you, if you want company,” Twilp offered, rattling the pouch of gems in his pocket. “I’m not carrying your book anymore, and I’m feeling lucky.”
Vreva thought for a moment, then nodded. She could do a lot worse than to have a light-fingered halfling around. Besides, she knew he was trustworthy, or at least, as trustworthy as a burglar could be. “All right, then, let’s go. But I’ll warn you, when we get back to the club, don’t bet on black twice in a row on the wheel of chance. The table’s rigged.”
“You’re admitting to cheating your customers?” Twilp stared at her in exaggerated shock.
“On the contrary. I find it brings in more customers if I arrange for certain talkative gamblers to win more than they might on their own.” She shrugged. “Just good business.”
“You’re my kind of businesswoman, Virika!” Twilp started down the steps.
“Akhiri in this disguise, please. Don’t confuse me. A slip could be lethal.” Vreva turned back to Torius. “Be careful with that book. And try not to alienate the harbormaster.” Lothera Cothos really was a valuable source of information. It was unbelievable luck that she had become enamored with Abidi Ben Akhiri, obsequious toad though he was.
“And you don’t forget who you’re impersonating on your way home, please.” Torius hitched up his belt and winced. “If rumors start flying around about Akhiri, I’ll know who to blame.”
“Don’t worry, Torius. I don’t like being Akhiri any more than you do.” She drew her dagger, cast her light spell on it once again, and followed her halfling companion down into the secret byways beneath Ostenso’s wharves.
* * *
Celeste swayed her long serpentine body to the silent rhythm of the heavens. With every twinkle and pulse of the stars, the celestial song sang in her mind, her blood, her every muscle and sinew. She could sense their hidden message, feel it surging through her veins, but she couldn’t quite understand.
So close …
Still swaying with the song, the lunar naga stretched toward the skylight over her head. Her coils brushed aside the pillows arrayed on the cabin floor. She couldn’t recline, couldn’t simply relax and enjoy the view as she had so many thousands of nights before. Not when she was so close to understanding. Her tail flicked with her frustration. She felt as if the answer lay on the tips of her forked tongue, but she couldn’t speak it.
Please … tell me …
Something intruded upon her reverie, a faint sound like the buzzing of an insect. Celeste ignored it. The stars’ message hovered in her mind, a guiding light shrouded in fog. Closer … Please … She could almost feel it. A faint caress, a touch, a prod …
A sharp poke, and a shrill voice.
“Celeste! Wake up!”
“What?” Celeste twisted and reared back, flaring her upper body in preparation to strike.
“Hey! Careful! It’s me!” Snick stepped back, her hands out in impotent defense.
“Sorry.” Celeste eased her posture but couldn’t fully relax, her coils still writhing in time to the celestial song humming in her veins. “I was just … thinking. You startled me.” The lie fell haltingly from her lips. The truth was that she’d been utterly lost in the heavens, entranced, oblivious to her surroundings. Not again.
“No kidding.” Snick glared as dangerously as a gnome with blue hair could glare. “You damn near bit my head off!”
“I said I was sorry. Next time, don’t poke me!”
Celeste didn’t mean to snap at Snick, but her inability to understand the celestial message frustrated her to no end. As with any lunar naga, she had been born a stargazer, but lately her fascination had become so intense that she would slip into a kind of waking dream, straining to understand the message she could almost hear, yet never quite grasp. These episodes were not only frustrating, but worrisome. During their recent passage from Almas, the trance had occurred almost every night, every time she gazed at the starry sky. Several times Torius, Grogul, or the first mate Thillion had to jostle Celeste out of her reverie to remind her to take a navigational fix.
“I only poked you because I knocked, then called your name three times, and you didn’t answer. You were really lost.” Snick peered up at the skylight. “I don’t understand what’s so interesting about the stars. They’re the same ones every night, you know.”
Celeste’s tail twitched at the gnome’s shrewish tone. Snick was in a foul mood, and the whole ship knew why. They’d just dropped off Twilp Farfan, and Snick was already pining. Celeste considered pointing out that they’d be back in Ostenso in a month, and the gnome could renew her fling with the flighty halfling then, but expecting Snick to listen to logic would do no good.
“Instead of telling me my infatuation with the heavens is silly, why don’t you tell me why you’re here, Snick?”
“Oh, well, it’s the harbormaster. She’s here.”
“Lothera Cothos?” Just saying the woman’s name made Celeste’s tail quiver in irritation. Every time they arrived in Ostenso, the harbormaster blustered aboard and ordered Torius away to her villa for the evening. She didn’t even look at the ship’s forged papers anymore, just greeted him, gave him that look, and told him to expect her carriage that evening. Then Torius would go off to be with her.
They never spoke of what happened, but Torius was always upset when he returned. He usually spent the rest of the evening drinking. Celeste knew he was having sex with Lothera—her sense of smell was too keen to miss it—but she could say nothing against it. Not considering that the first time they’d sailed into Ostenso disguised as Thuvian merchants, she’d actually encouraged Torius to go with the harbormaster to avoid unwanted scrutiny. At the time, an evening’s dalliance seemed a small price to pay to avoid trouble. Now it was part of the interminable spying they’d agreed to do for the Twilight Talons.
No. The spying that Torius agreed to do. She often cursed the day that Vreva Jhafae talked Torius into helping her spy on the Okeno slavers. The deceitful courtesan had neglected to mention that his role would involve joining the Twilight Talons until they were all in up to their necks.
Only Stargazer’s officers knew Torius’s secret. As far as the rest of the crew was concerned, they were simply being paid to run information and supplies to Vreva, originally in Okeno, and now under their old disguises as Thuvian merchants in Ostenso. The sailors weren’t stupid, and probably suspected some kind of cloak-and-dagger mischief, but they were all loyal, and the pay was good. As a bonus, they still hunted slavers under an Andoren letter of marque, albeit surreptitiously—but even that was a deception, a means for them to sail in and out of Almas. Celeste had to admit that it felt good, working to disrupt the vile machine of sentient-trafficking, but it also meant that she had to watch the man she loved leave her for the intimate company of another woman every month or so.
By the stars, I hate this sometimes …
Celeste shook off her fit of pique, and realized what Snick was saying. “Why are you coming to me about Lothera? Isn’t Thillion back yet?”
“Nope. He’s still out with that wine merchant, and probably won’t be back until dawn. They were going to sample some northern reds, and you know how that goes. Sometimes I think that half-elf has wine running in his veins instead of blood. And before you ask: No, Torius and Grogul aren’t back yet either.”
“You mean I have to talk to her?” Celeste had never spoken with the woman before. Lothera had no interest in the ship’s navigator, and Celeste liked it that way.
“Well, someone better talk to her, and she’s not going to be satisfied with me.” Snick plucked at the breast of her cabin-gnome outfit, her disguise while the ship was in Ostenso.
They all had their roles to play in this dangerous game. Just as Stargazer became the Thuvian merchant ship Sea Serpent, every member of her crew also had their alternate identities. If anyone identified them as the now-notorious Stargazer’s crew, their necks would all be in the same noose.
“But…” Celeste knew she could deal with the woman, but should she? She looked up at the skylight, wishing she could just go back to her stellar musing.
The song of the heavens roared in her mind, and a sudden feeling of confidence flushed through her, a sense of rightness. She should do this. There was nothing to worry about.
“Fine. I’ll come on deck. Why is she here, anyway? We’re already checked in.”
“She’s looking for Torius, of course. Or rather, Akhiri. You know what I mean. And she’s not happy.”
“Lothera’s never happy.”
“Yeah, what’s she got to be happy about?” Snick’s sarcasm lashed out like a full broadside. “She only controls every bit of merchant shipping in Ostenso. She’s rich and powerful, and wields her influence like a blunt weapon. If my life was like that, I’m sure I’d be a surly bitch, too!”
“I’ll be right out. Tell her I was sleeping.” The lunar naga slithered to the closet and opened the door with a flick of simple magic so familiar that she didn’t even have to think of the spell.
“I’ll tell her, but don’t dawdle. I don’t think she likes me much.” Snick hurried out.
Celeste scowled as she surveyed the contents of the closet. While in Ostenso, she couldn’t freely share the master cabin with Torius. In her guise as Sea Serpent’s human navigator, Celeste bunked in the guest cabin, and that was where she kept most of the clothes that she only really needed when she used magic to take on human form. She dared not risk going to her cabin in her natural form—or worse, unclothed as a human—in case the harbormaster happened into the sterncastle. She floated a robe out of the closet.
Celeste cast the spell that transformed her into human shape. Arms detached themselves from her body, and her tail split into legs. Other than for making love to Torius, she used the spell primarily to interact with people outside the crew. Lunar nagas were rare, and drew too much attention and prejudice for her to slither about looking like herself. When she didn’t have to touch anyone, she could use a simple illusion, but Cothos might want to shake her hand or something. Long practice made the transformation easy, but she took special care this time, for she wasn’t assuming her more common human countenance. Her naturally pale skin and long, flowing white hair were too conspicuous to be seen in Ostenso.
The transformation complete, Celeste gazed into the mirror, right into the eyes of a dead woman.
The dusky skin, deep crimson hair, and incongruously light hazel eyes were hauntingly familiar. They had belonged to Cammy, a shipmate killed by an Osirian mercenary cecaelia more than a year ago. Celeste still remembered the startled look on Cammy’s face as the spear pinned her to the deck. So many friends dead and gone. The life of a pirate wasn’t safe, and those of privateers and spies were no better. Celeste had little doubt that more friends would die in the course of their work for the Andoren abolitionists. She believed in what they were doing, but the lies within lies that they were all forced to weave sometimes wore on her.
Will we ever be done with it?
No answer came to her. She would just have to deal with her misgivings and play her part. Shaking off her morose thoughts, she slipped into the robe and left the cabin. She locked the door behind her, then walked past the silent galley and her own cabin to the door onto the deck. She cinched the robe tight, rubbed her eyes and mussed her hair, and strode forth to lie yet again.
Lothera stood just abaft the hatch to the main hold, arms crossed, a look of profound displeasure on her hard, angular features. She glared over the top of Snick’s head at the crowded harbor, ignoring the fuming gnome. Scores of ships, most of them Chelish naval vessels, lay at anchor or docked around the protected bay. Anchor lanterns swayed atop the innumerable masts like constellations of low-hanging stars as the ships rolled on the gentle swell. This was the harbormaster’s own personal fiefdom, but she scowled upon it with a mien of contempt.
“Harbormaster Cothos.” Celeste curtseyed and made a show of straightening her hair. “Please forgive my appearance. I was asleep. How can I help you?”
“You’re the navigator?” Cothos raked her from head to foot with her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am. Celeste.” She curtsied again. “I’m sorry, but the captain and first mate are off the ship.”
“Yes, this … menial told me that Captain Akhiri was away.” The harbormaster didn’t even look at Snick, which was just as well. The murder on the gnome’s face would have probably started a fight. “Where is he this late at night?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.” Celeste shrugged helplessly. “He didn’t tell me where they were going. I’d be happy to give him a message for you.”
Lothera pursed her lips for a moment, and one eyebrow arched slowly. “I’ll leave him a note.” Without further explanation, she strode for the sterncastle door.
Unable to stop the woman—angering the harbormaster would certainly make their task here more difficult—Celeste could do nothing but follow. In fact, Lothera’s strides were so long that she had to hurry to catch up. The harbormaster’s progress halted at the locked cabin door, however. She rattled the handle so hard that Celeste was afraid she’d break it off.
“Damn it! I forgot that Abidi keeps his cabin locked.”
“Not to worry, ma’am. Let me get that for you.” Celeste fished the key from the robe pocket and worked it in the latch.
“You have a key to the captain’s cabin?”
“All the officers do, ma’am.” Celeste opened the door, and stepped inside to wave the harbormaster in, offering a weak smile. “If something should happen, we might need to get to his charts.”
“I see.” Lothera strode past her to the chart table strewn with Celeste’s books, instruments, star charts, and astrological tables. Lothera reached for a sheet of blank parchment, then stopped and turned to Celeste. “If you’re the navigator, why are the navigational instruments here? Shouldn’t they be in your cabin?” The suspicion in the harbormaster’s voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.
“Oh, those are the captain’s instruments, ma’am.” Celeste ducked her head disarmingly and waved toward the beautiful silver sextant that Torius had bought her. “I could never afford such fine tools. He lets me use them, of course.”
“Of course.” Lothera snatched the pen from the inkwell and scrawled a note on the page in her hand. After signing, she straightened and looked around the cabin. Her eyes narrowed as they settled on the nest of pillows beneath the skylight. “And what else does the captain let you use?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am?” Celeste followed her gaze and cursed herself for leaving her things out, but she hadn’t thought the harbormaster would insist on coming to the cabin.
“The captain’s pillows are misplaced. The last time I was here, they were stored in that nook beneath the stern gallery windows.” Lothera picked up one of the astrological texts. She glanced at the open page, then looked back to Celeste, accusation plain in her eyes. “And I don’t recall Abidi ever telling me he had an interest in astrology.”
“He doesn’t, ma’am. The books and the tables are mine.” She shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I was using the captain’s telescope, a much finer instrument than my own, to view the planet Bretheda and her moons.”
“So, you thought you’d lie back on his pillows in your robe to view the stars through the skylight in his cabin? Why not go outside?”
“I wasn’t stargazing in my robe, ma’am.” Celeste pulled her robe tightly closed. Why is she so suspicious of me? “I was using his telescope here because he doesn’t allow me to take it up on deck when he’s not around. It’s very expensive, as you can see, and if something happened to it, I’d never be able to pay for it. As for the pillows…” It galled Celeste to have to deny her own possessions to this prying woman, but she bit back her anger and lied smoothly. “… well, they’re more comfortable than lying on the cabin sole.”
“Oh, really?” Lothera glared at her.
“Yes, ma’am.” Turning, she grabbed the pillows and shoved them into their customary place. Enough of this nonsense. Celeste knew one way for certain to quell the woman’s surly attitude. Mumbling a spell beneath her breath that would ease the harbormaster’s mind, she tucked the last pillow in place. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t understand why you’re upset with me. If you don’t believe me, you can confirm what I’ve said with Captain Akhiri when you see him next.”
“Oh, I will. You can count on it.” She rolled up the note as if it offended her and started searching around the chart table.
Celeste concentrated to make sure her spell had taken effect. The woman’s mind seemed to be under the influence of her magic, but she wasn’t acting very friendly. “Can I help you with something else?”
“Yes. A length of ribbon or string to tie this up.”
“Here, ma’am.” She brushed past Lothera to open the slim drawer under the chart table. Among the dividers, rulers, and rolled charts lay a spool of fine ribbon. She snipped off a length with a pair of scissors and held it out to the harbormaster.
Lothera snatched the ribbon and tied the rolled parchment so tightly that it crinkled the paper. Evidently, even charmed, Lothera Cothos remained brusque to the point of rudeness. Maybe some more assurance would help.
“Please, Mistress Cothos, let me assure you, there’s nothing inappropriate about my being in the captain’s cabin and using his telescope. He’s given me permission.”
“Has he, now?” Lothera dropped the note onto Torius’s bunk. When she turned back, her face was set in a mask of hard planes, the muscles bunched at her jaw and her lips pressed in a thin line. “I’d like to believe you, Celeste, but let me tell you how this looks to me. You said you were sleeping, and I come here to find the lights turned low, the pillows placed, and you in naught but a robe. If this isn’t a picture of seduction, I don’t know what is!”
“Seduction!” So Lothera did suspect her. Celeste would have laughed out loud at the irony if the situation weren’t so dangerous. “Mistress Cothos, let me assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Lothera’s skeptical scowl faded as the spell worked on her, soothing her ire and easing her fears. “Again, I’d like to believe you, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I will not be cuckolded by you, Celeste. Do you understand?”
“I understand perfectly, Mistress Cothos.” If the charm spell had brought out Lothera’s best, Celeste would hate to see her at her worst. “Rest assured, ma’am. Captain Akhiri isn’t my type. Or, rather, I’m not his.”
“Oh?” An eyebrow arched in question. “How so?”
“He prefers … strong women, ma’am, and I’m anything but that.” She shrugged meekly and looked down. “He likes capable, powerful women like you. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer him beyond my skills as a navigator, so you have nothing to worry about.”
“Then why were you here in your robe?” There was still a hint of suspicion there.
“I wasn’t. I did some stargazing, then went to bed. I forgot to put my books and the pillows back. That’s all.”
“I see.” The harbormaster bit her lip. “I seem to have made a fool of myself.”
“Not at all.” Celeste smiled disarmingly as she gestured toward the door. “Your suspicions were based on the evidence you saw, and they show you have feelings for the captain. I can’t blame you in the slightest.”
“You won’t … tell him I made such a scene, will you?” The spell was obviously working on her fully now, for Lothera to ask a favor.
“Oh, of course not. I’ll just tell him you were concerned that he wasn’t here. He’ll be flattered.” Celeste followed Lothera from the cabin and relocked the door. When she turned back, the harbormaster was giving her a very curious look.
“I … didn’t mean to be accusative, you know. In my line of work you learn to suspect the worst of people.”
That was the weakest apology Celeste had ever heard, but she smiled and took it for what it was worth, a charm-induced admission of lousy social skills. “I understand completely.”
The corners of the harbormaster’s mouth twitched upward in something that might have been a momentary smile. Then the expression passed. Lothera nodded, turned on her heel, and left without another word.
Celeste waited until she heard the night watch usher the harbormaster off the ship before returning to the cabin. Shrugging off the robe and hanging it in the closet, she dispelled her transformation and coiled back into her familiar form. A deep breath helped to settle her nerves, still jangling from her efforts to deal graciously with Lothera. She didn’t envy Torius having to associate with the woman on a close personal basis. Not in her wildest imagination could she picture the two of them being intimate.
Which is just as well. If I ever did imagine Torius having sex with that woman, I’d probably bite them both.
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